Warrant article resurfaces ConVal consolidation, reconfiguration discussion

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Wednesday, January 24, 2018 6:10PM

A petition warrant article that would make it easier for ConVal officials to close schools will be put to vote in March.

The document, which was signed by about 60 residents who live within the ConVal school district, would give the school board the power to close schools if the student-body population dips below 50 resident students for two years in a row. It will appear on the ballot as Article 10.

It’s the most recent attempt at solving what some say is a growing problem across the district of a budget that continues to climb as its student-body population shrinks.

Ed Juengst, who lives in Peterborough and is a Select Board member, signed the petition warrant article. Juengst said he has been attending Selectmen’s Advisory Committee meetings, a subcommittee of the school board, for a couple of years now. One thing is clear from those meetings, he said, school officials are “in a dilemma.”

“They are under tax pressure from all towns, not just Peterborough,” Juengst said.

This year’s proposed budget would increase the district’s assessment by $1.8 million over the current budget cycle, a spike that is largely a result of a decline in revenues across the district. The increasing tax burden paired with burgeoning deferred maintenance costs on 11 aging buildings that make up the district is pushing the longstanding discussion of consolidation or reconfiguration to a peak.

“Something has to be done and be supported or we will drive up taxes in all nine towns and continue to put pressure on the school board,” Juengst wrote in a letter that he shared with the Ledger-Transcript.

He said the board is already having to make difficult decisions in order to keep its budget low, referencing an employee negotiations process that recently reached an impasse. A negotiations committee and an association that represents ConVal employees weren’t able to reach a consensus during the year-long process, which means voters will decide of employees will receive a raise or not next budget cycle.

If Article 10 passed in March, three elementary schools could be on the chopping block. Dublin Consolidated School, Temple Elementary School, and Hancock Elementary School are all hovering around the 50-student mark.

Opponents of closing elementary schools are pushing back against the petitioned warrant article.

Gail Cromwell, a select board member in Temple, is also against the petition warrant article that will appear on the ballot this year.

In a recent interview with the Ledger-Transcript, Cromwell pointed out that people who signed the petition warrant article were all from Peterborough. Out of the 60 names, about three were from other towns. Cromwell said it’s not surprising that residents in Peterborough would sign something like this because their elementary school wouldn’t close.

She said Temple could lose their school if the measure were approved.

And that could be detrimental to a small town like Temple.

“Why would a young family move to a place like Temple if they have to put their kids on a bus to another town?” Cromwell said. “I know if I was in that situation I wouldn’t move here.”

Alan Edelkind, who lives in Dublin, is also opposed to Article 10.

He sent the Ledger-Transcript a document titled “Vote ‘No’ on Petitioned Article 10 in ConVal.” The document says this petitioned warrant article comes at the wrong time because the school board is in the midst of studying possible reconfiguration and consolidation options.

“Without the results of these studies, you will not be able to make an informed decision,” the document says.

The study takes a deeper dive into the financial and educational/ social impacts of consolidating or reconfiguring the school and is asking questions like, what is the financial impact on the budget, and do larger schools mean a better education, to name only a couple off a long list.

But Juengst said some of those questions could just be a stalling tactic.

He said already the district has taken steps to come up with a solution to the problem.

During a meeting in September, the administration proposed a consolidation model that included cutting back to two primary elementary schools for grades Pre-K through third grade, one upper elementary for grades four through six, and one middle/ high school for grades seven through twelfth. The model would reduce the district’s costs by about $3 million and provide increased opportunities for universal pre-school and before-and-after care. It comes with a potential drawback of increasing student bus rides (not to exceed 45 minutes), loss of employment opportunities, and a shift from a town identity to a regional one.

Juengst while the study of the consolidation plan presented to the school board on Sept. 5 needs to be further analyzed and refined, he said Article 10 is a “less complex and a reasonable first step that could be taken.”

A slightly different but similar petition warrant article appeared on the ballot in 2016, which would have allowed the school board to study the feasibility and suitability of the withdrawal of one or more members from the ConVal district. The measure failed.

Juengst said more than likely the more recent petition warrant article will fail, too.

“It’s a tough thing,” Juengst said about passing such a measure. “I hope this increases the visibility of the issue though.”

Abby Kessler can be reached at 924-7172, ext. 234 or akessler@ledgertranscript.com.